Executive Spotlight: Barbara Vacarr, CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge
PITTSFIELD — Therapist, college president, leader of a large nonprofit. Barbara Vacarr has served in all of those capacities during her professional career.
She currently serves as the CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, one of the Berkshire's largest nonprofits. It was here that Vacarr in May made what she calls her most difficult decision professionally, laying off more than 90 percent of Kripalu's almost 500 employees, as the center decided to remain closed through the rest of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We met with Vacarr recently to talk about her career, that difficult decision, and what attracts her to change.
Q: Your bio on Kripalu's website states that you're committed to learning what creates meaningful change in the world. Can you describe what that means?
A: I've always been interested in how people grow and develop and listen in their lives and most importantly in ways that empower them to take action in the world. I'm very interested in what leads people to take action. It's in my DNA. My father's a Holocaust survivor.
Q: How does being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor influence the work that you do?
A: I think it's the bedrock of it. I grew up where you have to be the healing of the world. The Hebrew phrase, tikkun olan (prounounced tee-koon oh-lumm), it literally means the repair of the world. I grew up in a family and community where you literally had to be the repair of the world.
Q: Is that because of what your father went through?
A1: No, that is part of the Jewish tradition. But it became central in our lives because it was so immediate. I would also say that children take certain roles in their families and from the time I was a really young child I wanted to heal my father's pain and that definitely was part of what influenced everything that I did. I was an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah project. I had a grant at one point working with Cambodian children in Lowell who had been in Pol Pot's concentration camps. ... Really, what it boils down to is how do you move people not to be silent in the face of other's oppression, and that is certainly at the heart of the faith and history of ourselves. It's a very relevant question right now.
Q: Speaking of now, based on your experiences, how should people deal with the times we're living in when there's so much uncertainty?
A: I've been thinking a lot about this, and I've been watching how easy it is to get overwhelmed given how big the problems are. I've been thinking a lot about yoga and meditation. If you think about it in yoga and meditation, the pause is the breath between action and reactivity, our ability to respond. In that pause you become aware and there's an opportunity to really cultivate awareness. I think about that in case of feeling overwhelmed. There are always big forces working against transformation.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A; I was born in Brooklyn (N.Y.). I did my undergraduate work at City College of New York. ... I ended up leaving college six credits shy of my bachelor's degree and traveling across the country. I ended up in New Mexico where I had my children. Then when I came back with young children, I went back to the program that was designed for adult learners at Lesley (University in Cambridge). And I ended up running programs up there.
Q: Leaving college before graduation and going to New Mexico. You sound like a real 1960s person.
A: Yes, I'm definitely a seeker. I take risks. But I'm always looking for the meaning and connection ... what's valuable.
Q: Why did you leave your psychology practice to become president and CEO of Goddard College?
A: I actually didn't leave it. While I was at Lesley for years. I had a private practice and always taught counseling and psychology. Interestingly, I was solicited for the position to be a leader at Goddard. And I realized the next place (for me) to help people develop meaningful action in the world went beyond supporting the individual. I was thinking about how to help organizations and institutions to do that.
Q: How did you do try and do that at Goddard?
A: Goddard has an amazing mission for transforming the world and yet it isn't connected in its own community. A lot of what I tried to do at Goddard was reconnect Goddard with the surrounding community educating not just students to go out into the world but for Goddard itself to be a model for that.
Q: Was it difficult to get that message across?
A: I think that it was challenging for so many reasons. I got there in 2010. It was right after the recession and Goddard like so many small institutions was struggling with a model of increasing expenses and major capital and facility investments that we needed while being located in the northeast where there was a declining demographic. There were so many challenges. Higher education is really mired in those challenges at the moment. We've seen so many small institutions not make it. ... I'm so inspired that Goddard continues to try and make it. I cheer them on from the sidelines.
Q: How difficult was it to make the decision to layoff so many people at Kripalu?
A; It was the hardest decision I would say I have made in my career. It's heartbreaking. ... The culture at Kripalu had made a turn where people were happy, motivated and inspired. And it's like we had reached that point of flourishing and then, "Boom!" The heartbreak now is the impact on everybody, on our staff, on everybody who is touched by the kind of layoffs we had to make. I will say that we did everything in our power to keep (everyone) as long as possible. We kept them for 14 weeks. But with the kind of community that Kripalu is we're not just talking about anonymous staff. I know these people. We all know them.
Q: How will Kripalu come out of this?
A: Here's where I also feel hopeful. ln the midst of a crisis, there's an opportunity for innovation and transformation. Also this pandemic that is challenging all of us is also eliminating the kinds of problems that we've been working around and managing and working on for a long time. So in this pause, there is an opportunity to innovate in the way that we've needed to. I have to tell you I am so deeply respectful in the commitment in the pivot that Kripalu made in bringing Kripalu online, for example. It's something that we know we've needed to have been doing for a long time. And in a heartbeat, we made a pivot from the principle that we needed to stay connected to the people who are going to need Kripalu more than ever during this pandemic (by) bringing Kripalu's programming to an online environment.
Q: Will Kripalu be different than it was before?
A: I think we're going to be looking at a world that has changed. ... What I will tell you what will not change is our mission. The core of the mission we need now more than ever.
Q: I get the feeling that you're a natural optimist by just talking to you.
A: I am. My daughter will often say to me that you have to stop talking in superlatives.
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